My Life, Our Times is a Big Clunking Fist of a political autobiography. It demonstrates Gordon Brown’s strengths and exposes his frailties. The book is well written, sometimes drily humorous and at moments gripping, not least when he turns to the subject of his personal tragedies. It makes a powerful case for the positive contributions he made, but it also skates over persistent questions about his record.
Brown has two historic and significant achievements to his name. First, he was able, initially, to overturn the depiction of Labour economic failure embodied in memories of his often-caricatured predecessors as Labour Chancellors of the Exchequer: Philip Snowden, who held the office during the first years of the Great Depression; Stafford Cripps, who oversaw rationing and austerity measures after the Second World War; Jim Callaghan, in office when the pound was devalued in 1967; and Denis Healey, whose tenure witnessed the IMF’s intervention, the Winter of Discontent and 98 per cent rates of marginal taxation.
For decades Labour’s enemies successfully used these memories to prevent the party from achieving any sustained period in office. However, Brown (strongly supported by Blair) proved for more than ten years until 2008, both in opposition preparing the arguments for Labour and then in government, the party’s ability to create economic stability and growth while maintaining high employment and low inflation, and providing substantial levels of investment in public services. He achieved this by sticking to budgets, by establishing the independence of the Bank of England and through an often-unpopular determination to outlaw profligacy in both national and local government wherever it occurred. By these means Brown transformed Labour’s economic reputation. This was the foundation for an unprecedented three straight election victories between 1997 and 2005.
Brown’s second success was his response to the 2008 financial crisis. He chronicles this well and interestingly, contrasting his ability to secure radical agreements to bolster the world economy with the failures of world leaders to do so after the Wall Street Crash. This is his greatest claim to a positive place in history and his efforts culminated in the successful London G20 summit in April 2009.
Brown achieved these objectives by applying focus, ruthless determination, weighty and targeted arguments, intellectual power, political courage and, often, charm and humour. It was the Clunking Fist in operation. His pre-2008 record explains the strong support that Brown had across the Labour Party and more widely. He was an immense figure and much respected. However, his book reveals clearly why so many people worried about the prospect of Brown becoming Labour leader and prime minister.
First, he was preoccupied with his personal standing. This is clearest in his continuing resentment at what he sees as Blair’s betrayal of an agreement they made during the 1994 party leadership election, under the terms of which Blair supposedly promised to make way for Brown during his second term in office if Brown undertook not to stand against him. Brown felt entitled to become leader and his anger at what actually happened became the prism through which he saw everything. It led him to become increasingly disruptive of both good government and healthy Labour politics, and even to damage his hard-won reputation for economic rigour, for example, by relaxing public spending discipline after 2005. In his final budget in 2007, the showboating reduction of the basic rate of income tax from 22p in the pound to 20p led him to abolish the 10p rate for low earners, which caused enormous and damaging controversy.
However, his belief that he would have won the leadership election in 1994 had he stood is fantasy. The roots of my own difficult relationship with Brown lie in our totally divergent views on this matter. In 1995 I told Jon Sopel, Blair’s first biographer, that ‘I started out believing that Gordon should not run for the leadership, but I have subsequently come round to the view that it would have been better if he had, and actually been beaten.’ It would have meant that Blair owed him nothing. This judgement stands up well in retrospect, but it damned me forever as an ‘enemy of Gordon’, a fact graphically explained to me on numerous occasions by his closest colleagues.
Second, he was too concerned about what others, notably the media, thought of him. This led to chronic indecisiveness, a crucial weakness in a prime minister. His inability to admit his shortcomings (except for a poor Twitter technique) leads him in this book to shift the blame for his failures onto a string of ‘guilty men’, including Rupert Murdoch, Mervyn King, Fred Goodwin, Donald Rumsfeld, Nick Clegg and Blair himself. He was much taken with Abraham Lincoln’s ability to build a ‘team of rivals’, but never (with the notable exception of appointing Peter Mandelson to his Cabinet) succeeded in reaching out beyond the small personal group whom he dominated and who were completely dedicated to his world-view. His team’s attacks upon his Cabinet colleagues over many years were disgraceful.
The book confirms what has always been my view, that Brown was intellectually tortured about such ideas as modernisation, privatisation and neoliberalism. One example is his conflicted approach to the Private Finance Initiative. Another is his claim that tuition fees are ‘regressive’, which is wrong (he also states that I, as education secretary, ‘conceded that’, which I didn’t). This confusion and indecision led him to arrive as prime minister with no plans for government, other than presentational measures to differentiate himself from Blair. It left him and Labour completely stranded as we drifted towards the general election of 2010.
Brown’s autobiography is enjoyable and interesting, but there is no serious discussion of his conduct of politics or of vital political landmark moments, such as his role in Blair’s resignation, the ‘non-election’ of 2007 and his handling of various unsuccessful attempts to remove him as prime minister.
Brown’s economic legacy is substantial. However, some of it has been lost by Labour’s failure since 2010 to counter the Tory trashing of its economic record. As Labour leader, his acolyte Ed Miliband led the charge in discrediting the party’s record in office and the effect was to fatally undermine Brown’s own achievements. And, tragically, it cleared the way for those who prefer Labour to be a party just of opposition and protest. All his life, as the book makes clear, Brown sought political power to make significant changes. But Labour’s sad inheritance from him has left the oppositionists in charge and led to the marginalising of the party, just when a real alternative government is vitally needed. The 2017 general election should have resulted in a clear Labour victory. Corbyn’s better-than-expected result must not hide the fact that in order to win Labour should now be ahead in the polls. It needs to regain public confidence and to demonstrate economic competence in the way that Gordon Brown successfully did twenty years ago.